Bismarck Was Wrong. We Need Better Coverage of Congress.
Reporting on law-making would benefit from more about the legislation itself, less about members personally.
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The observation that someone “who wishes to keep [their] respect for sausages and laws should not see how either is being made” is frequently attributed to Bismarck. He probably didn’t say it, but it has been a commonplace in this country since before the New Deal. That is to say, if you cover Congress, it’s something you should have heard: legislating is messy. And the bigger the legislation, often the bigger the mess.
But you wouldn’t know that from much of the coverage of the road to President Biden’s ultimately successful infrastructure and still-pending “Build Back Better” efforts.
Let’s pull back for a moment and look at the big picture. In 2020, in the face of a sudden, and at least initially terrifying, economic downturn, the Congress enacted about $4 trillion in emergency stimulus bills. (For perspective, that extra spending was roughly equal to the entire federal annual budget before the pandemic.)
In 2021, with problems continuing (and deaths mounting) but the sense of emergency fading, especially from when the vaccines began to roll out widely in the Spring at least until the emergence of Omicron, someone taking the long view might have expected the pace of additional spending to fade, particularly as fears of sustained inflation, predictably, arose.
However, when the Biden COVID relief package from March and the infrastructure bill are toted up, the 2021 special legislation amounted to roughly $3.1 trillion. Thus, in two years (2020 and 2021), the federal government committed to spending almost equal to what you might have expected in four years prior to the pandemic. That is an enormous departure from past practice, a series of truly momentous steps.
Through all of this, what the Washington press corps gave us, for months on end in 2021, were accounts of bits of sausage everywhere, most of them portrayed in various expressions of disgust from aggrieved legislators and interest groups on both left and right who, privately, were almost certainly as shocked as if they had discovered gambling at Rick’s.
Biden’s majorities—unlike FDR’s at the launch of the New Deal or LBJ’s in the days of his Great Society program—are narrow (in the Senate as narrow as possible). So it was always entirely predictable that those senators least comfortable with the bills would have enormous power to constrain them.
Until they had all weighed in, sophisticated accounts should have done much more to convey that the crucial bargaining hadn’t even begun. When it did, coverage of Joe Manchin should have focused more on how Trump carried his state 69%-30% (did you know that West Virginia was Trump’s second best state, behind only Wyoming?), rather than on on Manchin’s personal interests. To read about Krysten Sinema, you would hardly know she won her seat by just 56,000 votes in a banner year for Democrats and hails from a state Biden carried by three-tenths of one percent.
Beyond that, and much more important, I continue to think that the Washington press corps is having trouble adjusting to a normal presidency. There remains far too much coverage of the presidency as an individual rather than a branch of government, far too little on governance.
How, for instance, is the roll out of the $1.9 trillion Rescue Act signed last March going? Ditto any early action on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure legislation, now on the books for almost two months? The silence in coverage is almost deafening.
As the infrastructure bill sat in the House for nearly three months after its passage in the Senate, what did we learn about the differences it likely would—and would not—make? Not much. Since the Build Back Better framework was agreed among most congressional Democrats in late October, how much has been written about the $90 billion (!) grab bag of provisions labelled “equity and other investments”? Some of these would likely transform areas of our national life. A $90 billion piece of legislation would normally merit some press attention, and seems more interesting, at least to me, than Senator Sinema’s fashion choices. Beyond self-interested coverage of the proposed $1.7 billion Local Journalism Sustainability Act, you have likely learned very little.
The kind of coverage we need is suggested by this tweet thread, to which ProPublica reporter Lydia DePillis, who covers federal agencies, not Congress, devoted a much of a weekend in early November:
Bismarck is remembered as Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” but he was also a master legislator in creating the beginnings of modern social safety nets. (For the delicious irony alone, don’t miss this pageon him from the site of the U.S. Social Security Administration.) If Bismarck urged ignorance on others about the legislative process, he certainly did not take his own apocryphal advice. Nor should we. If Americans are to understand how their laws are made and implemented, the Washington press corps is going to need to do better.
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What, by the way, are we to make of the disclaimer on the page that, “This is an archival or historical document and may not reflect current policies or procedures”?
More coverage of the on-the-ground impact of legislation instead of the game theory of it would be refreshing. My take on the disclaimer: the agency wants us to know that page may not reflect current German policies. Worth noting that Germany had only moved from a confederation to a unified state in 1871.